So Bill Simmons is leaving ESPN at last, and for good reason it’s spooking the herd a little bit. Grantland is what it is– it’s a bloated site, but bloated with a lot of good writers who deserve work, which is almost perfectly designed to be not my slice of bread, given the aggressively upper-middle-browness of it. Like somebody told me recently, the online writing biz is kind of trying to fight an oversupply problem with more and more supply. Grantland was a pioneer in the giant payroll thing. Which, as someone who doesn’t have to worry about Disney’s bottom line, shouldn’t matter to me. But if you work for them I can get being anxious about whether the spigot stays on when it doesn’t have the partial intent of keeping Simmons on the farm.
As I’ve said many times, the problems with online writing are structural issues that compel most people in the industry to do a lot of work that they don’t enjoy doing and don’t think is good. Many of them also get to do enough of what they like that it’s a good deal for them; a lot of being a pro writer online has to do with how you handle the daily up and down of good work vs bad. I do think that recent events have forced a lot of smart people to conclude that the trend is not encouraging. I’m so constitutionally cranky that it’s hard for me to take my own pessimism seriously, but the structural issues look not so good.
Anybody with structural politics has to grapple with the degree to which you can fairly blame those within those systems. The guy who breaks into your car high on meth is certainly dealing with a lot of stuff from up top, probably including the class structure of our system. At the same time a lot of people from his same class don’t break into your car, and you can feel free to find him an asshole for doing so. Same thing with aggregation: don’t hate the player, hate the game, but feel free to call garbage garbage. Just understand that if you don’t actually pay real dollars to real publishers you are yourself the most important cog in the click farming machine.
The bigger issue is something I’ve written about many times: that you and I live in a culture that thinks its pitiable to work in a job that lacks intellectual or artistic fulfillment, but which relentlessly mocks people who try to make it into the jobs that do. Someone who files TPS reports all day is a sad drone; someone who goes to grad school, writes a screenplay, or tries to break into acting is pathetic, pretentious, and bound for failure. We have steadily erased the unhealthy American ideal of Career-As-Self and white picket fences, but we haven’t replaced them with anything that most people can do. We just come up with more ways that you can be a loser. We’re best at that.
I actually think Grantland staff will be fine for awhile, as the site now has an entirely different ulterior reason for existing: spite. John Skipper clearly detests Simmons; folding Grantland soon after his departure would look too much like an indication of Simmons’s indispensability. And as someone who likes it when people can get paid to think and write about stuff, that’s good for me, even if I’m not big for Grantland itself. In the long term, well, it’s cloudy for all of us. And have I mentioned that I’m on the job market myself?